The empirical mismatch

Here’s a useful and enjoyable item at Brian Leiter’s blog – the full version of a letter to the Guardian by Rae Langton and John Dupré.

Your headline reads ‘Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal‘ (2 December 2013). What do scans reveal? ‘Maps of neural circuitry show women’s brains are designed for social skills and memory, men’s for perception and co-ordination’. Yet another deeply confused ‘hard-wired brain’ story. It has received much comment, not least for the empirical mismatch between the data and the conclusion, given that the cited study apparently provides ‘strong evidence for behavioural similarities between the sexes’ (Cordelia Fine, But there is something even more basic at stake.

Please, please, will scientists, science journalists, and readers wake up to this truism: if the mind is the brain, any mental difference will be a brain difference. Suppose there are some actual mental differences between men and women, whatever their prior causes. (Hard to imagine training up half of humanity one way, half another, without creating some differences between them.) There will then be some neural differences. Suppose you have two televisions, whose images are different. You call in the technician, who trumpets the discovery that they differ in their pattern of pixels. How remarkable! Actually, no. That bit we knew already: no difference in the images without a difference in the pixels. Same for ourselves: no difference in states of mind without a difference in states of brain. That doesn’t mean it has to be that way, or is designed to be that way. Even if your mind is your brain, that doesn’t mean ‘your brain made you do it’—as if the ‘you’ were a different being, a soul puppet whose strings are pulled by your neurons. Let’s not fall for this confusion, or we’ll take what happens to be the case, and freeze it.  We’ll take differences, however they may have come about, and make them seem inevitable and appropriate.  We don’t need this deterministic fairy-tale. It’s bad for men and women, bad for science, bad for us all.

No one will listen, of course.


  1. Al Dente says

    Hard to imagine training up half of humanity one way, half another, without creating some differences between them.

    Evidence of the adage: If things are different then things are different.

  2. Amy Clare says

    No one will even slightly listen. Apparently it’s too difficult to grasp the notion that learning causes changes in the brain – even though without this concept we cannot explain walking, talking or any voluntary human function.

  3. Shatterface says

    If the differences are hard wired then they’ll presumably be present to the same degree in cultures which are more and less patriarchal, and in men and women brought up in different times when gender roles were more rigidly defined.

    Have the findings been correlated between men and women from US, Northern European and Australian backgrounds and from more ‘traditional’ cultures?

  4. yahweh says

    I feel we are following in the footsteps Colombo and Falloppio, discoverers (sic) if the clitoris.

    Apropos of nothing, perhaps ‘the mind’ is what the brain does – like an application or operating system is the function of a computer – now were all computer literate.

    Maybe it will turn out that women’s breasts are ‘wired’ to their brains differently as well and then the world will know for certain that women are from Venus and men from Mars men and women have different peripherals.

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